“Shall Congress prepare for health and climate crises by transferring funds from military budget to cities for human needs, jobs and an environmentally sustainable economy?”

This question may well be faced by nearly 50,000 voters on the November ballot in New Haven. Submitted by the City of New Haven Peace Commission, the referendum was unanimously supported by the Board of Alders Health & Human Services Committee at a hearing June 2 and sent to the full board.

Henry Lowendorf at a rally.

New Haveners aren’t the only ones wondering why we are flowing essential resources to weapons and war and not to combating existential threats such as pandemics and global warming, providing universal health care, or repairing our crumbling infrastructure. Twenty-nine members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to House leadership calling to reduce the $750 billion military budget.

What may surprise most people is that questioning the huge U.S. military budget is rarely done by members of Congress, or state and local governments. In fact, how much the military gouges the federal budget is barely raised in candidate debates and presidential campaigns and is unknown by most Americans. The silence results from an almost unanimous bipartisan consensus in Washington that that budget is sacrosanct.

This is not surprising since practically every Congressional District in the country receives funding from the Pentagon, a policy that office holders and candidates view as providing jobs and good-paying ones at that, and it’s a boat they don’t want to rock.

The money allocated in fiscal year 2020 to the Pentagon is $738 billion a 20% increase since the Trump administration began. But if that number seems high, consider that it may well undercount war spending by another $500 billion, actually sending $1.2 trillion of our tax dollars into killing and building killing machines.

If that startling figure doesn’t yet grab your attention, consider that $1.2 trillion represents 69% of the federal discretionary budget, the budget that Congress votes to allocate every year. Everything else – medical research, environment, education, transportation, labor among others – divides up the remaining 31%.

Yes, some of that $1.2 trillion arrives in Connecticut every year, in 2018 $14 billion.

Every year Connecticut’s five members of the U.S. House, two senators, and its governor and other state officials congratulate themselves on the amount of “defense” spending they have jointly brought into the state and on the number of jobs that enormous trove creates. Not one of our members of Congress signed onto the Congressional letter demanding a cut in the Pentagon budget.

Members of Connecticut’s Congressional delegation never, never speak of the cost to broader society of the jobs manufacturing killing machines. Or what alternative jobs, and how many, we might have if that money were spent differently. Where is their moral vision?

Our elected officials never explain why, with all that money coming into the state, so many of Connecticut’s major cities are among the poorest in the nation and are continually facing bankruptcy.

The pandemic has grabbed and refocused our attention on what our country’s priorities should be in contrast to what they currently are.

Over half century ago, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., predicted “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Spiritual death is endless wars and ongoing slaughter abroad. It is the strangling of foreign economies to bend sovereign governments to the will of corporate America’s greed. It is the economic devastation that forces whole communities to migrate to seek employment, food and housing.

Spiritual death is the attitude that it’s fine to keep the U.S. economy running on the coffins of hundreds of thousands of our neighbors. Spiritual death is the complacency that the use of weapons in mass murder or the killing of individual African and Native Americans and transgender humans is normal. Spiritual death is placing immigrants, men, women and children into cages, or flying them infected with a contagious virus back to countries too poor to deal with pandemics.

Even before COVID-19 threw the U.S. economy into a steep downward spiral, New Haven city government was contemplating a significant tax increase on top of further layoffs and cuts in service.

The pandemic, however, has burnished in stunning relief the absence of real security all of us confront, health security, employment and income security, safety from overwhelming, unpayable debt, safe working conditions. It has redefined for us who are indeed the essential workers and pointed to their often unlivable, appallingly low wages. It has made us feel threatened by neighbors passing by on the sidewalk.

In short, the pandemic has grabbed and refocused our attention on what our country’s priorities should be in contrast to what they currently are.

Instead of hundreds of billions of dollars annually shoveled to the maw of the Military Industrial Complex, we could have a different society. Imagine if the $15 billion Connecticut taxpayers sent in 2018 to the Pentagon, the greatest single polluter and emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, were spent on jobs building a sustainable energy economy in our state. Imagine how the $160 million that New Haven’s taxpayers sent to the Pentagon could fund educators, first responders, paving roads, and inspecting housing for lead poison.

Connecticut actually sends much more money in taxes to Washington than it receives in federal funding, $8 billion more. Our state would look a lot different if we were building bridges instead of bomber engines, funding schools instead of submarines.

Members of Congress and the mass media ask where the money will come from to fund Medicare for All, but they never ask to source the annual killing budget. The government response to COVID-19 drove businesses to close and employees to unemployment. Yet Congress and the President rapidly located trillions of dollars to hand to big corporations and some to supplement poverty incomes, we should have no doubt that there is money for all the urgent needs of our communities: Conversion from the genocidal fossil fuel industry to a Green New Peace Deal; jobs rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, redirecting the vast treasure from promoting death to ensuring health; eliminating lifelong education debt and funding full-life education; eliminating evictions and foreclosures and instead guaranteeing decent housing; and replacing clogged streets and fragile bus and train systems by constructing high quality public transportation.

New Haven’s proposed referendum opens a desperately needed discussion on where the wealth of the wealthiest nation in history ought to be directed. It allows us to demand our members of Congress rethink the broad consequences of their votes: Spiritual death or healthy lives.

Henry Lowendorf is Chair of the Greater New Haven Peace Council

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